Best Picture Nominee Review Series: The Social Network

The Social Network (2010)
This is a guest review from Carrie Polansky.

There are two ways to read women in the universe of The Social Network:

1.    As unnecessary set dressing, existing solely for the aesthetic and sexual pleasure of men; or
2.    As vital to the invention of social networking and, by extension, to the progression of the film’s plot.

The first reading is actually the one I prefer. The truth is, the female characters in The Social Network are so poorly written that it is easy to ignore them entirely. They are relegated to the roles of girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, one-night stands, groupies and lawyers out to destroy Mark Zuckerberg’s empire. None of them are directly involved in the creation of Facebook or any other social networking site – they are the scenery that accompanies the male protagonists (and antagonists) as they go about reinventing human communication. In fact, if you removed the women from the story entirely, nothing would really change.

My fiancé, who also writes movie reviews, likes to refer to this as “superfluous woman syndrome.” He points out the fact that such treatment of women has become a standard film cliché, and I tend to agree. I think that’s why it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of The Social Network. Yes, it’s maddening that so many films lack positive, three-dimensional roles for women, but perhaps there just wasn’t room for women in The Social Network. It’s based on a true story, after all – could it just be that no women played important roles in the real-life creation of Facebook? If that is indeed the case, I can’t fault Aaron Sorkin or David Fincher for leaving three-dimensional women out of the film.

And this brings us to the second potential reading of women in The Social Network. I typically hope that women fill vital roles in movies, but in the case of The Social Network, that reading is incredibly troubling. The film is bookended by Mark Zuckerberg’s relationship with his girlfriend, Erica. The first scene depicts Mark and Erica on a date, during which Mark is particularly rude and dismissive to Erica, and she, deciding she’s had enough of this treatment, dumps him. This leads Mark to write a highly inappropriate blog post about his ex-girlfriend, which leads him to create a website comparing the attractiveness of Harvard co-eds…which ultimately leads him to create Facebook. Which, by extension, means that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook because his girlfriend broke his heart.

Again, this would be fine, if it was really how Facebook came into being. Except it wasn’t. Mark Zuckerberg has had the same girlfriend since 2003. And this brings us back to the first reading of The Social Network. The fact that no women do anything significant aside from giving Mark Zuckerberg motivational angst doesn’t mean that no women played significant roles in the creation of Facebook, because we already know that the truth has been altered in the transition to celluloid. All it means is that the filmmakers could not think of anything interesting for any woman to do, other than provide the male leads with enough angst to fuel the film’s action. And that’s the most horrifying reading of all.

Carrie Polansky is one of the Editors and Founders of Gender Across Borders. She graduated from Emerson College in 2008 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Visual and Media Arts (and a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies). Her review of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire appeared in last year’s Bitch Flicks’ Best Picture Nominee Review Series. She vows to produce films with much, much better roles for women than the roles in The Social Network.

  • Although _The King’s Speech_ has been cleaning up in other awards ceremonies, I suspect _The Social Network_ will be this year’s Best Picture. I’m ambivalent about that.

    Your final paragraph speaks to my frustration with the film: It seems that the fictionalization made the story of Facebook’s genesis even more misogynistic than it likely is. Why? WHY? When Aaron Sorkin accepted his Golden Globe (for Best Screenplay), he thanked “all the female nominees” for being role models for his young daughter, telling her to “look around–smart girls have more fun and you’re one of them” (you can watch a video of the speech here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rThgcz8NBIo – until it’s taken down). This speaks volumes toward his hearing the accusations of misogyny in his film and feeling the need to respond. I’m sure he was being sincere about his hopes and love for his daughter; the moment, however, seemed strangely scripted.

    Some films may not have room for women. I understand this. (If there were an equal number of films that had no room for men, we wouldn’t be continually outraged by the lack of women in film.) _The Social Network_ is about power, about the people who continue to run our society (they’re white, male, ruthless, and privileged in every sense of the word), and about a genuine revolution in the way we communicate with each other. It’s a film very much of and about our current cultural condition, and it’s damning.

    The script is whip-smart, and my fear is that people miss the “damning” part and (wrongly) see the Zuckerberg character as someone to sympathize with (aw, he’s just a lonely guy, looking for connections, screwed over by women) and even admire for his relentless pursuit of his (possibly stolen) idea.

  • Chas Andres

    From what I know about Sorkin, I certainly don’t think his intentions were to be sexist. He’s written interesting female characters before (Allison Janney’s C.J. on the West Wing is one of my favorites)and I’d say he has a lower percentage of bimbos on his shows than nearly any other TV writer.

    So why not have an intelligent, 3-dimensional female character in this film? As you say, he clearly deviated from reality to the point of fabricating motivation for Zuckerberg. Why not go a step farther and introduce a woman behind the scenes who helped create Facebook?

    Halfway through watching this film, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I think there’s only about two people in the world who could have written this movie and made it work. Luckily, Sorkin is one of them.” I read somewhere that Zuckerberg’s journey in this film is one of antihero to tragic figure, and that isn’t easy to accomplish. Sorkin could have chosen to portray Zuckerberg’s girlfriend as a positive figure in his life, but I think that would have made his behavior toward everyone else in the film seem that much more villainous. Could we have reconciled that version of Mark in our minds? Could we have related to him and felt sorry for him in the end?

    I also feel that a superfluous romantic subplot would have been worse, not better. I would rather see a lack of women than yet another woman who is only in the movie because someone decided we needed a girl for an active character to fall in love with.

    Ultimately, though, I think the answer is this: Sorkin researched Zuckerberg and realized that he needed the audience to ultimately sympathize with him in order for the film to have any emotional resonance. The only way to do this, he felt, was to show his alienation from the rest of the world. The guy created a site that allowed friends all over the world to connect, but he has none of his own.

    While the portrayal of women in the film may not reflect Zuckerberg’s actual experience, it certainly reflects the experience of countless of other antisocial men.

    I know tons of people like this – they aren’t friends with any women themselves, so they view women as ‘the other’ – beings of either purity or debauchery. The Madonna/Whore dichotomy and all that. I think Sorkin did a pretty good job allowing us to get into the head of this character he created.

    Ultimately, I think the truth was just too bleak to put on film. The celluloid Zuckerberg has a soul, albeit a misguided one. He had motivation for what he did.

    The real Zuckerberg? Just another ruthless businessman.

    Yawn.

  • Excellent analysis. I almost left the theater when the Crazy Asian Girlfriend set the bed on fire. SERIOUSLY? My sister and I looked at each other, and our mouths dropped open. Talk about a superfluous scene. I might even buy the argument (not really) that we needed to see that Zuckerberg is antisocial, didn’t understand women, whatever, and that Sorkin was trying to portray that (FAIL). BUT, that doesn’t really explain away the Crazy Asian Girlfriend stereotype–a scene that should’ve been edited out. It wasn’t funny. It accomplished nothing. And using women as objects to be acquired (Justin Timberlake with his hot Victoria’s Secret model girlfriend, telling Zuckerberg “Look, you can have this too one day!”) is such a tired, uncreative, LAZY cliche. I expected (and deserved) better.

  • @Chas – I agree that a superfluous romance would’ve made the film worse, and that the point of minimizing the role of women was supposed to speak to the world of antisocial nerdy men.

    That’s why I really wish there hadn’t been any women at all. Take, for instance, one of my favorite films – Glengarry Glen Ross. That’s a film about men and business and power, and aside from a coat check girl at a Chinese restaurant (who has no significant dialogue), I don’t think any women appear on screen. And it totally works. It makes the point that women are not a part of the world of real estate and competitive business. And it was made back in the early ’90s, before Hollywood became so PC that it couldn’t fathom having a movie like that without at least a female secretary.

    I think The Social Network could have been a lot like Glengarry Glen Ross, in part because Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet write very similar sorts of stories. Both of them write well for women, most of the time, but they both also enjoy tackling male-centric stories. There’s nothing wrong with that – the stories Sorkin and Mamet tell are definitely worth telling, IMHO.

    But, with that in mind, I wish The Social Network had kept women out entirely, because it’s much better to have no women in a film than poorly written women. I understand that certain movies are about men. That’s fine. It’s when those films tack on pointless and borderline offensive female characters that it becomes problematic.

  • This is an excellent analysis of the film, but I disagree with the idea that Mark Zuckerberg’s fictionalized version of himself is sympathetic. I actually had a hard time connecting with him as a male character. I didn’t see him as just “just a lonely guy, looking for connections, screwed over by women.” Yes, he may have been lonely and longing for connection (the underlying theme behind the success of Facebook), but he was screwed over by his own character flaws (selfishness, tactlessness, absence of empathy, inability to connect with others, etc.)

    I hear the comments about wanting to speak to antisocial, nerdy people, but is this really a sympathetic way to portray antisocial people? Personally, I felt that Zuckerberg’s character had little to no respect towards women other than as objects to satisfy his own emotional or sexual needs.

    I’m not sure that’s very sympathetic to me.

    If he had been socially awkward or not good with people, that would have been one thing, but he seemed constantly uncaring or degrading. I write these off as character flaws that speak towards the importance of the qualities that Zuckerberg’s character lacks. However, I would hardly say that I was rooting for him to succeed.

    The last shot of the movie, to me, was the most powerful and simultaneously the most disturbing. Not because I felt sorry for this character, but because I thought it spoke volumes about what the absence of those qualities in one’s life can drive one to do. Yes, this character has reached a level of financial success, but at what cost?

    It scarcely matters because it seems that “The Social Network” film clearly distorts historical accuracy for the sake of creating this alternative narrative, and sort of undermining the film’s credibility as any sort of historical document.

    I walked away from the movie not so much thinking about how much I felt sorry for fictional Mark Zuckerberg (I can’t say I did too much) but more wondering what the absence of the ability to connect with people says about us a society.

    -MVB

  • This is a great post and follow-up discussion. Compliments to all.

    I third Chaz’s comment about the superfluous romantic subplot and second Carrie’s wish that the film would have restricted itself to a completely masculine world. I second Stephanie’s outrage at the crazy Asian female stereotype. What the hell was up with that scene? It didn’t even move the plot forward. I also agree with Space Pirates Online! that there is nothing to admire about the anti-hero of the film. Yet…

    My problem with the film is that it falls into the trap of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Along the lines of those who argue that there’s no such thing as an anti-war war film, there may be no such thing as an anti-capitalist capitalist flick. In the final analysis, Zuckerberg’s character does come off as sympathetic if not even admirable (in that although-we-know-Gordon-Gecko-is-the-enemy-we-still-want-to-be-him perverted kind of way).

    The concluding scene presents us with a Gatsby figure, an emo-boy who did it all for his Daisy. Blah. Even more pernicious, is his depiction throughout the film. Zuckberg undermines the Harvard establishment, the good ol’ boys club. He represents the hope of guerrilla capitalism: even if you have to cheat and lie your way to the top, you don’t have to be born with a silver spoon. In short, as is the case with Gecko, it’s too easy to root for him, especially if you are an ignorant young male looking for role models. The problem may be that it is impossible to depict just how horrible the capitalist monster truly is because few people, even ruthlessly rich fucks, are completely irredeemable as individuals (cue Scrooge). The true evil lies with the system.

    Which brings me to my final comment. The best part of the film, its nugget of genius, is Trent Reznor’s ominous yet inspiring soundtrack. The touching notes of the melody haunted by an inescapable pulsing background noise captures en nuce the ambivalence that is facebook. The social network revolution promises to open up a world of opportunities (the melodic notes), while being nothing more than the next big thing to be capitalized by the all-encompassing system (the utterly unsettling bass sound).

  • Yes! I *loved* the soundtrack, and I agree completely about the importance of the score in that final scene. The whole thing felt ominous and unsettling to me. I turned to my sister and said, “That movie just made me want to quit Facebook.” But I didn’t. Why? I should quit now. Right this second. (In a minute.)

    The truth is, I was entertained by The Social Network. I liked that it delved into issues of copyright and property rights and plagiarism — I found his chair argument kind of interesting. (That whole, “If I build a new kind of chair, do I have to give credit to the person who invented chairs?” thing.) Writers and Artists and Musicians have dealt with these issues over copyright infringement and what constitutes fair use, etc, since, like, forever. I have a feeling we’ll see increasingly more lawsuits over cybershit as cybershit continues to take over the universe.

    But the women. Honestly. I mean, why in the hell was Rashida Jones even IN this movie? So she can show up and say to Zuckerberg, “You’re not an asshole. You just try really hard to be” … and then walk away while he looks off into the distance and reflects on her Startling Realization, and the audience can all collectively go, “Awww, Rashida Jones GETS HIM.” ???

    Um, no. No more movies where attractive women make excuses for random men they met like three times, especially if he’s a sociopath. Thanks!

    (I’m not saying real-life Zuckerberg is a sociopath; I’m saying fictional Zuckerberg is. Because he totally is.)